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A Teasing ‘Hint’ That Astrophysicists Got Dark Energy All Wrong

Researchers may have discovered a major error in their understanding of that enigmatic cosmic force. That could be great news for the fate of the universe.

On Thursday, astronomers who are carrying out what they label as the biggest and most precise survey yet of the history of the cosmos announced that they might have learnt about a major flaw in their understanding of dark energy, the enigmatic force that is accelerating the expansion of the cosmos.

Dark energy was widely assumed to be a constant force in the cosmos, both currently and throughout the history of the universe. But the fresh data suggest that it may be more variable, growing weakerorstronger over time, reversing or even fading away.

“As Biden would say, it’s a B.F.D.,” stated Adam Riess (an astronomer at Johns Hopkins University and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore). He shared the 2011 Nobel Prize in Physics with two other astronomers for the discovery of dark energy, but was not involved in this new study. “It may be the first real clue we have gotten about the nature of dark energy in 25 years,” he said.

That inference, if confirmed, could unshackle astronomers — and the rest of us — from a longstanding, grim forecast about the eventual fate of the universe. If the exertion of dark energy were constant over time, it would ultimately push all the galaxies and stars so far apart that even atoms could be torn asunder, ridding the universe of all life, energy, light and thought. On the contrary, it seems, dark energy is adept at changing course and pointing the cosmos toward a better-off future.

The crucial words are “might” and “could.” The new finding has roughly a one-in-400 probability of being a statistical fluke, a degree of uncertainty termed three sigma, which is very much short of the gold standard for a discovery, termed five sigma: one chance in 1.7 million. In the history of physics, even five-sigma events have evaporated in the thin air when more data or better analyses of the data emerged.

This news emerges in the first progress report, published as a series of papers, by DESI (a large international collaboration called the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument). The group has just started a five-year effort to create a 3D map of the positions and speeds of 40 million galaxies across 11 billion years of cosmic time. Its initial map, focused on the first year of observations, includes just 6 million galaxies.


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